In early 2006 I traveled to England to finally take the walking trip I had dreamed of since my teens. My 17-year old niece, Maddy, accompanied me. Maddy had Asperger’s Syndrome and had never been so far away from home.
All photos are my own except for the ones that are credited to others.
“My dogs are barking,” as Lissa used to say. We hoofed it to the bus station with our packs this morning after paying our bill (over £160), which included two people for two nights, and dinner the first night – a bit steep, but the accommodations were luxurious) and caught the bus to Land’s End, a corny assortment of tourist gift shops and amusement arcades. A young man in the bus also got off with a backpack, like us. “How far are you walking?” I asked. “The whole way, to John O’Groats,” he answered in a soft Scottish burr. “Awesome!” I said, “good luck! How long will it take you?” “Eight weeks,” he replied. He went inside to officially register, as all the “End to Enders” are supposed to do, and we walked on, past the arcades and sweetshops to the astoundingly blue Atlantic. There was not a cloud in the sky and the day was hot. In the distance, 28 miles away, at least two of the Scilly Isles were plainly visible. We strolled slowly along the promenade over the water, gazing at the lighthouse out a ways on rocks called The Longships, and could see the Scillonian making its slow way toward the distant islands on the horizon. I told Maddy how the Scilly Isles are probably the inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Lone Islands in the Narnia books; and reminded her that this was the closest she would be to home until we flew back. Then we started our walk along the Coast Path.
The rock formations were simply spectacular. We wasted a lot of time in the first 30 minutes lining up good camera angles to document the dark, deeply-scored rock formations and the blue sea beyond. We trudged along slowly, me striding excitedly in front then stopping, hands on hips, to wait while Maddy caught up. Eventually, after I helped her adjust her straps, she managed to get up to stride and keep pace with me. The Coast Path split into several pieces every so often, and was unmarked, causing us to scratch our heads in perplexity quite a bit. We finally realized that when it splits into two trails, that we should follow the one closest to the cliffs.
The trail, in places, went so close to the edge as to be terrifying, with a narrow way and a precipitous drop upon our right, and crashing waves several hundred feet below. I thought to myself that if Maddy’s mother could see her now, she’d absolutely freak. I thought also to myself about how Maddy was intrinsically clumsy and prone to slipping and falling, and hoped in my heart that she wouldn’t topple off the edge. Fortunately she was able to keep her footing.
The view was incredible, the sun was hot, and soon I was thoroughly sweat-drenched and puffing from hauling myself up so many steep inclines. Steps had been cut into the rises, and I told Maddy, “Makes you think of the Endless Stair the hobbits climbed with Gollum when they went to Mordor, doesn’t it?” To which she replied, very literally, “But that was all ugly, and not green like this.”
The colors were impressive. We were striding across an actual moor, the only one I’ve ever seen. The treeless landscape was covered in brownish heather (unfortunately not in bloom) and with small gorse bushes in yellow blossom. Harry had told us yesterday, “When the gorse is in bloom, kissing’s in season; and it’s always in bloom, fortunately.” The gray weathered rocks were covered in patches of brilliant orange and gold lichen, and the heathland was covered in flowers that included pink spurge and a white bladder-like blossom that I did not know, and things like our own prickly lettuce with yellow, dandelion-like flowers.
We marched along under the hot sun and soon began to burn. I ordered Maddy to take off her black polyester jacket since it was almost 80 degrees, even though she said she was perfectly comfortable. She is apparently oblivious in large degree to physical discomfort in addition to her other characteristics. She is not unintelligent but has no sense of common finesse. She has been over-protected by her family and I think it high time she was out on her own, learning some new things.
We came across another holy well at St. Levan, but if the saint lived in the cell here, he (or she) could not have lain down on the tiny rock-slab floor, which was only large enough for a person to stand on comfortably, but perhaps he sat leaning against the wall. And if the saint drank from the well, he would have to negotiate a bit of scum, a scattering of duckweed, and a few fat black tadpoles. “We come here every year,” said a pair of walkers to us, “and the tadpoles are always here.” I wondered to myself where the duckweed originated – you can’t simply dig out a receptacle for water and have it spontaneously generate.
We passed coves with beaches, and people swimming and playing with children and dogs. “Those were all smugglers’ coves once, Maddy,” I told her, looking enviously at the frolicking people. At Porthcurno, to my great disappointment, we could not see the Minack Theatre due to an afternoon matinee performance. We descended a truly frightening set of steps to the valley, my heart in my mouth most of the way. We attempted to get in to see the Museum of Telegraphy, for Porthcurno is where the Trans-Atlantic cable came ashore, along with many others, but the attendants regretfully and very politely told us that we could not park our backpacks while we looked at the exhibit, not could we (of course) take the backpacks inside. It was unfortunate, for it looked very interesting. They let us browse the gift shop, where I picked up a postcard for Hugh Heinsohn and found that 17 cables originally came ashore there. Porthcurno was chosen to be the site of “the Victorian Internet,” as they call it, because there were no large ships that harbored there whose dragging anchors could snag the cables.
I had wanted to press on to Treen and eat at the Logan Rock Inn, but we could not locate the proper trail and were furthermore extremely weary. My feet were killing me because of my boots, which were fine on level ground but terrible on descents, which pressed my toes painfully together. We gave it up, and went to the bus stop to catch a ride to St. Buryan, our destination for the evening’s B&B. The bus was an open-topped double-decker, and even though Maddy professed to have no interest in riding on top, I made her do it because to do otherwise would be feeble. I have never had a more terrifying ride, nor a more thrilling. The double-decker lurched through the Cornish countryside like a runaway dinosaur, tree branches lashing the rails at the top, rocking from side to side, squeezing through the narrow lanes past stopped cars whose passengers flinched, whipping past the second-floor windows of houses. It was like the Knight Bus of the Harry Potter books. The narrowness of the roads and the San-Francisco-like steepness in places made it really frightening, but pleasurably so. “I don’t see anything so scary about it,” said Maddy unflinchingly.
Our accommodation in St. Buryan turned out to be a rather grubby cottage with a very social hostess named Deb. We had a conversation about neopaganism; she expressed genteel contempt for the whole circus that has grown up around Glastonbury, and I told her about our ex-tenants who were neopagans and did “skyclad” rituals and had a stolen human skull that they did ancestor worship with. “The skyclad part is all right, I sit in my own back yard naked on sunny days,” she said; but to steal a human skull is completely disrespectful.”
We strolled down to the large diocese church at the crossroads and saw a Celtic cross in front of it, along with a crude stone cross inside the churchyard dating to Saint Buriana’s day (in the 600s, I think). The church had many interesting ancient features, along with a beautiful wooden screen carved in the 1400s or 1500s and still bearing traces of the original paint. There was an arch at the front/side of the church, now filled in, which dated to the time of King Aethelstan. “I don’t like Christianity,” said Maddy. “Why?” I asked. “It’s contradictory,” said Maddy. “In what way?” I asked. She could not articulately explain, but I gathered that she’s currently enthusiastic about her friends’ neopaganism (they spent last weekend at the Elf Fest down at Lothlorien, near Bedford.) “Well, I’m not a Christian either,” I said, “but I have a lot of respect for anyone, of any religion, who has a true spiritual calling.” I told her about the radiant and activist nuns I had met at Oldenburg who felt that a true worship of God should include raising one’s food organically and showing others how to do it, but she was not impressed. “I don’t like Christianity,” she repeated. “Have you read the Bible?” I asked. “I tried but I got bored,” she answered. I told her I didn’t like evangelicalism, or any form of orthodox religion of any sort, but that I had a lot of respect for someone who simply worshipped his or her god without a lot of trappings or liturgy or congregation, as a matter of heartfelt faith. “Like old Saint Buriana probably did,” I said, looking up at the weathered stone cross in the churchyard, “or the hermit at the holy well yesterday, Saint Creed in his little stone cell.” “I think Christianity is stupid,” she repeated. “The problem with neopaganism, however,” I pointed out, “is that it doesn’t represent a real spiritual tradition. They keep saying that they’re following a worship that has been passed down for thousands of years, but all of that was lost to Christianity over time. What they’re doing has been reinvented recently, in the 20th Century.” “It’s meaningful to them,” said Maddy. “Well, it would be more meaningful to me if it didn’t mix-and-match, with a little bit of this, and a dash of that, a bit of Native American beliefs thrown in, and a side-bit of Buddhism for good measure,” I said. “What’s wrong with that?” asked Maddy. “It’s not a belief system if it’s all scrambled together like that,” I said. “Well, a lot of people believe in it,” said Maddy. I gave up, and because she found sitting in the pleasant, sunny churchyard looking at Saint Buriana’s cross to be irksome because of the presence of Christianity, we left. I was sorry she couldn’t see the beauty of the church, where the organist was playing, and swallows swooped and dived around the tall tower. To me, a non-Christian of the staunchest sort myself, it was a lovely place of peace and quiet. On the wall inside the church was a stone coffin-shaped tombstone of a French lady of the days after the Norman Invasion, with an inscription in phonetically-spelled medieval French. It interested me to think about her life and what experiences she may have had, leaving France to come to Cornwall with her lord almost a thousand years ago.
We ate at the St. Buryan Inn and went home to our B&B. Maddy was exhausted and fell into bed. I elected to take a shower, as I was exceedingly sweaty and grubby, but could not figure out how to turn on the hot water with the arcane British water heater. The water issuing from the jet was not just COLD water, it was ICY water, as if straight from a cave, or an underground cistern. Thinking “this is going to be a character-building moment,” I stepped resignedly beneath the spray. I had not been so cold since skinny-dipping at Griffy Lake in December, years ago. I gasped instead of breathed, body rigid, arms furiously working to soap and wash my body so I could get out again. Goose bumps were still all over my arms when I went up to join Maddy in the bedroom.
I went down early to breakfast, leaving Maddy to sleep in. The other people at my table were a young couple from London. We chatted politely; I mentioned that I had been alarmed to read about the English crime wave. “What crime wave?” snorted the young blonde woman in genuine amusement. I told her I had read that London right now has a similar crime rate as New York in the 1980s. “That’s nonsense,” she said firmly; “Of course, you have to watch out for pickpockets. And you shouldn’t go walking through Brixton with a laptop.” —I asked my landlords if it was true that a rough estimate of the age of a hedgerow can be made from determining how many species of plants live in it. “That’s quite true,” said Deb. “So how old are the hedgerows around here?” I asked, “they’re simply filled with plants.” “Oh, they’re quite old,” agreed Deb and Bob. “Medieval?” I asked. “Some near the coast probably go back to the Iron Age,” they thought.
Maddy and I caught the bus in front of the post office and rode back down to Porthcurno to set out on the second leg of our coastal walk. Today we ended up escaping disaster by a hairsbreadth. Maddy was tired and was not physically ready to set out on a walk. Being out of touch with her own body, she could not articulate it to herself or to me. She did not pack any water in her water jug for the walk, as I had done, nor did she take along any snack to eat on the trail, as I had done. She plodded slowly instead of walking briskly. The day was hot and the sun was blazing down. “Maddy, can you try to walk faster?” I asked kindly; “The slower you go, the longer we’ll be out here, and it’s exhausting to move slowly rather than fast.” She was completely blown by the time we reached Treen, which was only an hour along the coast. We trudged up an extremely steep long hill for three-quarters of a mile to reach the Logan Rock pub, where we ordered lunch, and Maddy was scarlet-faced and dull-eyed. “What ails the girl?” I kept wondering, half annoyed and half concerned. She ate scampi and fries and consumed an ice cream sundae. I stuck with vegetable soup and a salad, but had some ice cream as well, topped with a big yellow dollop of clotted cream which I ate a third of, then removed in one slab-like mass to my plate so I could attend to the ice cream, unimpeded.
We set out again after lunch, around 1:30 by then because of our poor rate of progress. Maddy’s pace was one that a 3-year-old child could have easily matched. I began to get annoyed. I’d stride on leading the way at a very reasonable pace, a pace much slower than my usual workout pace, then realize that Maddy was far behind me. I’d stand and wait, again and again and again, until she would labor into view, then I’d set off again. She simply could not match my pace, and I began to look at my watch, checking the time, and began to grow concerned.
We came to St. Loy’s cove, the most beautiful place I have ever seen, a fairyland of trees with blessed shade, rushing and gurgling water, tall ferns beneath the shade and most unexpectedly, a house with a B&B that offered cream teas and cakes on a terrace with picnic tables, surrounded by a fabulous garden and greensward. I was hot and my tee-shirt was completely wetted with sweat under my arms, all across my back and on my chest, and I was embarrassed about how I looked, but I felt it only right that we stop for liquid refreshments and let Maddy rest. It was 3:30 before we moved along again. Before we trudged on, I made a quick detour around the garden to check out the amazing plants: burgundy-colored succulents with shiny, pad-like leaves; tall blue spikes of echium that must have been at least ten feet high; cardoons that put my own to shame, being already almost six feet high without even having flowered yet; and great blazing banks of purple, orange, yellow and white daisy-like flowers. The grass was carpet-like, perfection indeed. At the foot of the garden was a narrow view of the boulder-strewn St. Loy beach. I think I might actually consider killing someone in order to have a house and yard like that. My life goal is now to become rich enough to afford a villa in a Cornish cove.
We set off again on the trail. I had hoped that Maddy would be reinvigorated by our stop, and she expressed the determination to march around the coast to our destination at the next night’s lodging, Castallack Farm, but she began lagging again. Soon it was clear that she was in trouble. A passing German tourist (Cornwall is simply filled with Germans) told us it was another two miles to Lamorna Cove, where we needed to get off the Coast Path and strike inland. Maddy began to fail, with clear symptoms of sunstroke – nausea, cold clamminess, dizziness and weakness. I made her sit down and rest every 10 minutes and take water. Then I found out she had not packed her own water jug. Knowing that the consequences could be serious, I gave her my own water.
Soon she was not able to walk even for ten minutes. I said. “Let’s just keep moving, as slowly as you need, and we’ll rest every time you say so.” She lay down on the dusty, blazingly hot Coast Path with her head on her wadded up jacket, and I wiped her face with her bandanna, upon which I had poured some of our precious water. “I’m cold,” she said plaintively; “I’m so sleepy.” Looking at my water jug for the first time (it was lashed onto the back of my own pack where I could not see it, but she could reach it) I found that each time we had stopped for water, she had had only a sip instead of really drinking. Dehydration was obviously an issue here. I tried to figure out what to do. I sat so that she was lying in my shadow, shielded from the sun. “Maddy, no one can come and rescue us off these cliffs,” I said gently. “We’re going to have to walk off them somehow, by ourselves. We can rest here as long as you like and move on when you’re ready. Maybe it’ll be easier for you if we move on when the sun is lower and it gets cooler.” My concern was that we were late for our B&B and had no way of phoning ahead to let them know, and that they might give up hope of our arrival and rent our room out to someone else. An additional concern was that we had a good mile or more to go AFTER we reached Lamorna. Maddy sat heavily on the path. “Is that Lamorna?” she asked, indicating where the next headland cut off the view of the next cove. “It must be Lamorna,” I agreed after consulting the map; “there’s a little rock in the water off the point of the far headland, and the map shows one at Lamorna.” She got up wearily and we started on again.
This time I strapped on her pack as well as my own, hers in front and my own on my back. Unfortunately, as we neared Lamorna, the path disappeared and became a rock-strewn passage with another sheer cliff on the right hand. I could not see my feet with Maddy’s pack on my chest, and I switched to carrying one pack on each shoulder. I clambered up over a particularly difficult place and looked back to see that Maddy had collapsed again on the path on her hands and knees and was throwing up. She barfed copiously, probably eight times, and completely lost her lunch as well as her breakfast. She lay gasping and spitting for a few minutes, then got up and found she had gotten vomit all over the knees of her pants and the sleeve of her jacket. Using our diminishing water, I carefully rinsed off the bad parts. She looked up. “I feel much better now!” she remarked cheerfully. She could even carry her pack again. We climbed around the cliffside path into Lamorna; all the while I was worrying, “Please, don’t fall on the cliff after getting this far, Maddy.” But all was well. We stopped at the public toilets and Maddy washed her hands and face and brushed her teeth.
We painfully hauled ourselves up another long incline to the top of the cove, where I used the public phone at the pub to call ahead and leave a message on the answering machine at our B&B. I also got directions from the helpful man at the bar. We walked along a narrow lane lined with hedgerows, painfully ascending still more inclines. Maddy was beginning to drag again. Finally we reached Castallack, where we found our hostess, Rachel, the owner of the farm, and collapsed gratefully into our room. I made Maddy go take a shower and shampoo, and when she was done I did the same myself.
While she rested in our room I talked with our landlady and described what we’d been through, and how grateful I was to be down off the cliffs. Rachel gave me a Bach flower remedy for sunstroke, to administer to Maddy in her water. I went back to the room and made Maddy slowly drink two and a half glasses of water with the remedy dissolved in it, and I read aloud to her from a Bill Bryson book that was on the shelf in the room. We went to bed at ten, Maddy exhaustedly and I for one extremely grateful that nothing terrible had happened. As I lay there, I kept seeing over and over the image of Maddy lying on her side in the dust of the path, throwing up, and imagining what could have happened – her toppling over the cliff, stunned by heat and sun. I got up and took a sleeping pill so I wouldn’t have to see these visions over and over.
* * * *
[Find the next installation of this travel journal at https://storiesbycarrol.wordpress.com/2015/07/07/more-from-the-journal-england-part-three/]